50 things to do in Beijing: historic Beijing

How to explore Beijing's fascinating history

Discover China's rich and varied history at these historic attractions throughout the city.

This article is part of our 50 things to do in Beijing feature.

See the national flag raising ceremony

There are few things in life on which you can be certain, but one is China’s national flag raising. It happens every morning at daybreak in Tiananmen Square (check the exact time for sunrise on a weather app before going).

Tourists from all provinces come for the ceremony, and it’s quite something to experience such a patriotic event, even as an interloper. One way of doing it is to simply spend the night out pub-crawling (The Den, anyone?) before heading to the square.

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See a Kunqu opera

You might think that Chinese opera is just highpitched shrieking (you heathen, you), but we’ve come around to it over the years.

Our favourite production is The Peony Pavilion, of the kunqu style, predating Peking opera. The modern adaptation at the Imperial Granaries features live goldfish, falling rose petals and some truly heartbreaking arias.

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Attend a Buddhist initiation

Read more Fayuan Temple near Niu Jie in southwest Beijing is the oldest surviving temple in Beijing. Its secluded setting and ancient gingko trees create a peaceful backdrop for the initiation ceremonies.

The rites are open to the public – for 5RMB entry – and take place the last Saturday of every month at 10am.

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Go West

Take Line 1 all the way west and at the last stop, Pingguoyuan, you’ll find yourself at the foot of the Western Hills. This is temple territory. There’s more than enough to choose from, but don’t miss an afternoon at Tanzhe Temple, which is perched on the side of a hill and offers superb views of the city on a clear day. Fahai Temple is much smaller, but boasts a remarkable collection of preserved Ming Dynasty frescoes. Nearby is Tianyi’s Tomb, the final resting place of a high-ranking eunuch, complete with dioramas. It’s the kind of crazy museum you only ever get in Beijing.

Take an extra bus to the village of Jiuyuan to soak up some old Chinese culture at the cute siheyuan residence of one of China’s great Yuan Dynasty playwrights, Ma Zhiyuan (马致远故居) pictured above.

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See the Great Wall your way

There’s no way we’d be leaving this one off the bucket list.

Remember when Badaling used to be cool? It’s still a fine option for those looking for a quick fix who are willing to brave the crowds, but now there’s every which way to visit this Unesco World Heritage site. Outdoorsy chaps might choose a several-day hike and camping along unrestored sections (try Great Wall Adventure Club) or village stays.

For romantic getaways, there’s the rustic Brickyard or upscale Commune by the Great Wall boutique hotels. But our new favourite way to see The Wall is an aerial tour (Great Wall Helicopter Tours), which offers expansive, panoramic views. Okay, so the Great Wall might not be visible from space, but it looks damn good from a helicopter.

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Mao's Mausoleum

This is more about the experience, less about what you actually see.

Pair it with the flag-raising at sunrise and get ahead of the long queues that form early. Your guess on whether it’s actually his body or not.

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Watch the sunrise at Jingshan Park

Whether you’re an early-riser or you’ve been out dancing and your watch is reading 5am suddenly, the best place in the city to enjoy the start of a new day is Jingshan Park.

In the summertime, the park opens at 6am, which is perfect timing for grabbing a few steamed buns and making the trek to the top of the hill, where you’ll be rewarded with the best views of the Forbidden City and the surrounding metropolis.

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Forbidden city

Count dragons in the Forbidden City

Of course the Forbidden City is on your list, but have you thought about making things more interesting?

As the symbol of the emperor, the dragon motif runs through the Imperial Palace. To say that there’s more than you can count is an understatement – the number climbs into the tens of thousands. But give it a shot. We’re behind you all the way.

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Muslim Quarter

Explore Beijing's old Muslim Quarter

To learn about China's deep-rooted historical relationship with Islam, head South to Niujie and discover the heart of Beijing's Muslim quarter.

Take the opportunity visit Beijing's biggest and oldest mosque, feast on halal hotpot, or stock up with Middle Eastern delights at the halal supermarket.

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Explore the best of the hutongs

Beijing's old back alleys (locally known as the hutongs) were formerly residential areas, homes to families over generations. If you take a trip to the hutongs today, however, you are more likely to stumble across a range of hipster boutiques, hidden away galleries, retro coffeeshops, cheap watering holes and traditional eateries.

If you feel like losing yourself in the winding roads, check out our Hidden Hutongs guide for some of our favourite spots.

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Visit the tunnel warfare remnants

Head North to Jiaozhuanghu and delve into China's wartime history. Hear stories of China's resistance against Japan during WWII, explore the tunnels used in combat and discover the creative techniques used by Chinese soldiers to repel the Japanese.

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Check out the Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven was a sacrificial temple used by Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors to appease the Gods and to pray for a good harvest.

The temple is located in Tiantan Park, which covers a gargantuan 273 hectares, so there is plenty to keep you occupied on a sunny day. Make sure you don’t miss the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – erected without using a single nail.

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Go to the National Museum

This huge, impressive museum, which stands on the East side of Tiananmen Square, was called the museum of Chinese revolution up until fairly recently.

Now, the name has changed to the more innocuous National Museum of China but the spirit remains the same: a visit is as much an opportunity to see how the Chinese state views its own history as it is a standard history lesson. We like the diplomatic gifts room, too.

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Discover Yonghegong Lama Temple

Despite what some of us might have thought (ahem) there aren't any Llamas here, but that certainly doesn't mean it is not worth a visit.

Still an active place of worship, you'll likely see monks chanting in unison while spinning prayer wheels, the temple's lively atmosphere continues outside its doors. The surrounding streets are full of fortune tellers and shops selling Tibetan art and religious artefacts.

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